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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  The Adani versus Birla battle in a prized market for cement

The Adani versus Birla battle in a prized market for cement

Birla’s UltraTech has made it clear it intends to retain leadership

Kumar Mangalam Birla’s firm has budgeted ₹12,900 crore for new cement capacity  (Photo: Mint)Premium
Kumar Mangalam Birla’s firm has budgeted 12,900 crore for new cement capacity  (Photo: Mint)

Gautam Adani’s meteoric rise to the world’s ninth-richest person began with a port on India’s west coast in the 1990s and friendship with a politician who’s now prime minister. The rest has been all about finding the next industry that will enlarge his debt-fuelled empire. The port brought in coal, liquefied gas and palm oil, and so Adani got into these and adjacent businesses. Once he began supplying coal to power plants, he entered mining and electricity generation and distribution. He supplied piped gas to Indian cities, and set out to harvest solar and wind power. Extending his dominance in logistics to owning airports, grain silos and data centres was logical, as was selling a cooking medium: He just had to refine Indonesian palm-oil arriving at Indian ports, of which he now owns 13.

Finally, if the group was going to create infrastructure, why not produce cement? In its most recent expansion, Adani is paying $10.5 billion. In this field, his challenger isn’t arch-rival Mukesh Ambani, the only Indian tycoon richer than Adani, it’s another billionaire. Kumar Mangalam Birla comes from old money, unlike Adani, a first-generation entrepreneur. His great-grandfather, who diversified from textile trading to jute manufacturing and a lot else, was a confidant of Mahatma Gandhi during India’s freedom struggle. Birla’s father, stymied by a post-1947 socialist turn, globalized the commodities conglomerate by expanding in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Birla bought Novelis in 2007 to become the world’s largest aluminium-rolling firm.

But then Birla had to deal with the 2008 financial crisis, followed by a boom-bust in China’s commodities demand and a long expensive entanglement in telecom, an industry disrupted by Ambani’s 2016 foray with cheap data and free voice calls. While a government-backed rescue for Vodafone Idea Ltd has prevented it from going belly up, a new battle has begun. Adani is challenging Birla in India’s vast and expanding market for cement.

No surprise then that Adani’s Holcim India acquisition evoked a quick response. Birla-controlled UltraTech Cement Ltd has announced a capital expenditure of 12,900 crore to increase its cement capacity by 22.6 million tonnes per annum. That works out to $75 per tonne. Adani is paying almost double that per tonne for taking over an estimated 73 million tonnes per annum capacity this year at the two Holcim units, Ambuja Cements and ACC. If Adani is going to buy scale at a premium, Birla will build cheap. The game is on.

Birla’s telecom business got bruised when Ambani waged a price war. But it’ll be hard for Adani to beat Birla in the latter’s family borough of cement. Birla, who was worth $6.5 billion in early 2013 when Adani wasn’t even a billionaire, is now almost $85 billion behind. But he knows his cement: UltraTech’s current capacity of about 120 million tonnes per annum gives it a market share of 20%, ahead of the 12% Adani just acquired. It isn’t, however, an assured lead. As Kotak Institutional Equities has noted, Adani has the option of expanding to 100 million tonnes relatively cheaply, at $80- 90 per tonne. That’ll cut his acquisition cost.

UltraTech has a $3.20-$3.90 advantage over Holcim in how much earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization it can eke out per tonne. Kotak says that Adani can close the gap by merging the two acquired firms, ending royalties to Holcim and saving costs via waste heat recovery. But Birla isn’t without options. He, too, will enter adjacent industries, such as paints.

It’s too early to say who will win India’s building-material war, though one thing is certain: Birla won’t take another challenger lightly. In 2017, when he decided to merge his Idea with Vodafone’s India business, he may have thought that scale would protect him from relentless pricing attack by Ambani’s Reliance Jio. It didn’t. The government won a case in the Supreme Court over past dues from cellular firms, putting Vodafone Idea’s survival in doubt. Finally, New Delhi had to offer a bailout to prevent the telco market from becoming a Reliance-led duopoly.

Cement isn’t as highly regulated as telecom. But Birla must still rue the ease with which Adani beat his rival bid—and one more by another Indian billionaire—for Holcim’s assets by agreeing to take over any liability emanating from a price-fixing case brought by India’s trustbuster.

The real question before Birla, however, runs deeper. If Adani plans to dethrone him as India’s king of cement, what’s the right response: Fight or flight? His great-grandfather, the patriotic Ghanshyam Das Birla, bet on Gandhi and won against British rulers and their companies like Andrew Yule & Co. Going up against Adani, who also views himself as a nationalist businessman, may be no less of a gamble in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India.

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services in Asia.

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Published: 07 Jun 2022, 10:27 PM IST
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